Last week Jim Geraghty quite reasonably asked why Republican presidential candidates who want to beat Mitt Romney attack other potential anti-Romneys rather than Romney himself. In tonight's debate, I think we saw part of the answer: some of them aren't up to the job of attacking Romney.
Rick Perry flailed in his dust-ups with Romney, seeming out of his depth even in the obviously rehearsed lawn care company attack. Herman Cain did a bit better in the Wall Street/Main Street distinction he tried to draw between their between the two of them. Rick Santorum was the most effective Romney critic of all, especially on health care, relishing the role of attack dog in these debates.
Cain struggled to defend the details of his of 999 plan, basically asking people to just take his campaign's word for it that all criticisms are bogus, and failed to say much of anything coherent on foreign policy. But he remained likable and had his fingers firmly on the pulse of the Republican primary voter, and the reaction on social networking sites suggested that many of his admirers will simply view 999 critics as defenders of the tax code status quo. We'll have to look at the polls to judge whether the attacks on Cain had any real impact.
Ron Paul was the only candidate on stage to offer any large, specific spending cuts. He was also the only one to make the important distinction between being pro-free market and pro-Wall Street, which is something Republicans ought to remember. But even in a generally sound performance, he always has his off moments, such as when he appeared to endorse something like Iran/Contra (Cain made a similar comment) and a bailout for homeowners. He'll need to work on the free-market populism bit.
Romney turned in a very strong performance, though a few times he seemed to lose his cool under assault. He doesn't get hit as much in these debates because he doesn't seem to be as hated by the rest of the field as he was in 2008, with the possible exceptions of Perry and Jon Huntsman.
Newt Gingrich always does well, but never well enough to suspect his campaign is going anywhere. Michele Bachmann is right that the cake is baked, though not in the way that she means.
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